Dispatches from the Goodreads Reading Challenge Wastelands: Bracken MacLeod’s Stranded

(Quick note: Last year, 2016, I found myself struggling to get through a book as quickly or with as much enjoyment as I used to.  No shade thrown on those books, but my life had become busier and it was easier to read io9 or cruise my Facebook newsfeed than crack open a book.  I didn’t like that and the Goodreads Reading Challenge seemed like a nifty way to get my head back in the game.  Of course, after setting my challenge, I realized I had way overshot my count in comparison to others–some of them reviewers, for Christ’s sake–so this became what will hopefully be a fun, year-long experiment on crashing and burning.

(But, on a related note, I’ve always wanted to see how I read over the course of a year, what my tastes were depending on the time of year, the circumstances, etc.

(So, here’s Dispatches from the Goodreads Reading Challenge Wastelands.)

stranded

Bracken likes to outline.  Just kinda tuck that away for the moment.  I’ll come back to it.  (As an opening line, it doesn’t have shit on “Marley was dead, to begin with”, but it’ll do.)

In this claustrophobic novel, a group of men become stranded on their supply ship, midway to the oil-drilling platform they’re supposed to refill, after a mysterious storm brings on an even mysterious fog and, when the mist clears, leaves the northern-bound ship beset in an ice that appears to be the size of two-years-growth.  Following this discovery, the electronics fail and the crew, aside from our ostracized protagonist, grow ill, and see a strange mass off in the distance…which, because of the impossible ice, they can walk to, if they dare.

It’s actually amazingly easy to do a summary for this book without revealing the twists (and there are some motherfucking doozies up in this piece).

Right from the start, this novel invokes one of my favorite films of all time–John Carpenter’s The Thing.  It’s in the setting (switching the Arctic from Antarctica, but snow and ice is snow and ice, y’know) and in the characters, a group of rough men who get along by hating each other than assisting each other.  The paranoia of the crew–particularly towards our hero Noah, which recalls the paranoia the camp had towards Macready when he found his way back to base in a white-out–grows and festers from these initial incidents, emphasized by the dislike Brewster has for Noah (the fun of in-laws!) and for a shameful past event Noah carries with him.

And then, when the crew decides to trek to the strange mass in the distance, the story goes full-on Twilight Zone on your ass, and then turns that knob all the way to eleven.

In a lesser writer, this twist–and this premise–would’ve been confusing, maddening, and obnoxious, the kind of literature you hold to others and say, loudly, “Don’t fucking do this EVER!”  In a lesser writer, Brewster would’ve been a one-trick pony, the personality of Noah right out of a session of binge-watching Ice Road Truckers, and the twists that come down would’ve been signaled and handled with such ham-handed terribleness.

In a lesser writer.

But, thank the bloody Christ on his cross, Bracken is not a lessen writer.

From the get-go, you see and feel the world aboard this ship as Noah does.  Brewster and his merry band of fuck-Os are malignant, mostly because they feel and act in a way that feels natural for the situation.  Even if you’ve never been on a ship–and I’m a devout land-lubber–you can taste and see and feel the Arctic Promise without anything being lost in translation.

And then we get to the twists.  There are two–a massive one and then one that comes along towards the end…but, you realize after you finish, would never have occurred without that first twist.  I won’t spoil it, but the first twist shoves what you could essentially boil down to a Jack London survivalist story by way of Tim O’Brien (that’s not shade being thrown) right into the realm of the weird and then stays there, lingering long after the last line.

Remember, Bracken’s an outliner.

Now, if we’re being honest, you can tell when a writer outlines.  It’s not hard to see.  In clumsy hands, chapters end on cliffhangers that aren’t picked up arbitrarily until chapters later.  Characters consistently act inconsistently to serve the plot points.   In the worst hands, the characters breathe as much as a folding chair–the writer’s just scraping the legs across the linoleum floor that is the plot.

But, with Bracken, he outlines from the perspective of the characters, not the events (which is where a lot of writers outline from).  I learned this recently, but he comes up with character sheets–to me, it reminds me of profiles of dating websites–and those character sheets, those bios and traits, dictate how the events unfold.  If, at point C, this Thing is revealed, this is how the characters will react, which will affect point D.  And so on.

As a writer, I don’t outline, but I can give it up–that’s neat.

So, everything in the plot, even the twists, unrolls naturally with the character beats feeling like they are responding naturally.  This makes for a character-driven ride that doesn’t really let up.  I finished Stranded at a dead-heat at two-thirty in the morning, unable to put it aside for the night.

Is the novel perfect?  That’s a hard answer.  There was one plot point I won’t spoil that I felt wasn’t resolved enough; an idea is given, but it, to me, didn’t followed through on.

Another thing that could be seen as a knock but, to me, isn’t, is the ending.  It’s ambiguous, but it’s ambiguity is one that isn’t immediately obvious.  It’s only after you finish that last line that you go–wait.  Did Noah return (metaphorically or literally, both can apply here) to his world or not?  And that leaves you thinking.  It lingers.  (It might seem like I spoiled something there, but once you read it–no, I haven’t.)

Much like how Bracken outlines, I find that type of ending neat.

Much like Stranded overall.  Loved that son of a bitch, in fact.

Later, this spring, his collection 13 Views of the Suicide Woods will be available from ChiZine.  That’s probably going to be worth picking up.

Just saying.

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Dispatches from the Goodreads Reading Challenge Wasteland: Neil Gaiman’s The View from the Cheap Seats

(Quick note: Last year, 2016, I found myself struggling to get through a book as quickly or with as much enjoyment as I used to.  No shade thrown on those books, but my life had become busier and it was easier to read io9 or cruise my Facebook newsfeed than crack open a book.  I didn’t like that and the Goodreads Reading Challenge seemed like a nifty way to get my head back in the game.  Of course, after setting my challenge, I realized I had way overshot my count in comparison to others–some of them reviewers, for Christ’s sake–so this became what will hopefully be a fun, year-long experiment on crashing and burning.

(But, on a related note, I’ve always wanted to see how I read over the course of a year, what my tastes were depending on the time of year, the circumstances, etc.

(So, here’s Dispatches from the Goodreads Reading Challenge Wastelands.)

a-neil

There’s this thing when reading Neil Gaiman–you know you’re reading Neil Gaiman.  His voice, his word choice, his construction of prose or even just sentences–they are, from beginning to end, Neil.  This is a rare feat–many writers, trying to be as direct as possible, struggle to maintain their own voice, finding it just enough to avoid the inescapable “drone”.  Few can be direct and still be flourishing.  Neil can do it.  Harlan Ellison can do it.  Joe Hill can do it more than his father, in my view (these are all my view…duh).

So, it was with great pleasure, I’d finally gotten a chance to read The View from the Cheap Seats, a collection of Neil’s nonfiction work.  The book doesn’t have everything from Neil that isn’t story-based, but it offers a nice overview of the past thirty years.  There are introductions (some of which I’d read prior to this), articles, musings, speeches.

Those looking for a “Gaiman story” will be dissatisfied, but for those looking for his dissection of what makes art work, or why you shouldn’t be bothered by the winning or losing of awards, or how to manage oneself on a creative endeavor will find themselves very satisfied.  I found myself nodding when he dissected the purpose of awards in his keynote speeches, finding kinship when he discussed Imposter Syndrome (the idea that you’ve somehow tricked everyone into liking your art, which makes you successful, but all will ultimately be turned over to someone who actually deserves it, leaving you stuck getting a real job), and explained how the people you meet, even the most unlikely of people, will help you build the life you become.

He’s chattier than a Stephen King nonfiction book (Danse Macabre or On Writing), making the subjects sound more like conversations.  This can be a strength or a hindrance, depending on what you “want” from Neil Gaiman.

For me, though, it was just fine.  Just what I wanted and needed this week.

Next, Bracken Macleod’s Stranded.

Bones Are Made to be Broken makes the Stoker prelim ballot (and I never react well to good things)

So, yesterday, the preliminary ballot for the Bram Stoker Awards was released, first to members via e-mail, who then disseminated it to social media and various genre websites.  I began to hear about it via a break at work, when my Facebook account kept blowing up, being repeated tagged in things, but never seeing why.  I finally messaged a friend about the list and got the info.

Bones Are Made to be Broken the titular novella of my collection–and one of the two original pieces in the book–had been selected in the Long Fiction category.

You often hear the cliche “his mind was blown” but this was my first time ever encountering it.  I told a colleague that the rest of my day was shot because I was trying to, in a strange way, figure out what the fuck had happened.  And the tags and congrats just kept on fucking coming.

I’m a natural pessimist, so while the reviews have been ridiculously positive, the blurbs were given freely (and were spectacular), and, at the beginning of it, Michael Bailey believed the stories were good–I kept all of that at arm’s length.  A part of me legit believed (and believes) that I somehow managed to hornswaggle these people.  This isn’t humble-brag.  I struggle with not feeling like a twat when saying thank you for a gift, let alone people going to some length to sing the praises of a bunch of goddamned stories I wrote.

And people say I’m an egotist.  Scratch an egotist and find a neurotically batshit person.

It’s also not humble-brag when I say that I didn’t expect to make any kind of list, prelim or otherwise.  A few people made sure to point out to me that they were recommending this story or that story or the collection to the recommended reading list and that was nice and I put it out of my head.  I tend to click over to Goodreads or the Amazon listing for Bones for reading reviews a bit obsessively, but when it comes to people saying, “Read this!” on some kind of list, I tend to act dismissively.  Thanks! I say, or That’s Awesome!  and I feel like a twat, like I don’t mean it (though I do) and the other person thinks the same.

So!  What happens now?  Well, a mailer will be going out to all Horror Writers Association members which will include links or copies of the balloted works.  Between now and at some point in February, this prelim ballot will be narrowed down to a Final Ballot of five works and it is those works that will be considered “Bram Stoker Award nominees”.  From there, it’s on to the Awards Ceremony at Stokercon.

Do I think I’ll make the ballot?  Oh, who the hell knows and I’m not even going to bother trying.  In all the categories, I’m digging how eccentric the choices are (how many times does Stephen King need to be nominated, y’know? He’s got more awards than the Trump White House has assholes).  Moreover, I’m just not bothered.  It’ll be fine, either way.

Here’s the secret to awards, gang–told by someone who has never won one, so you know I’m an expert.  I’m not, but Neil Gaiman is.  He said, as part of a keynote speech at an awards ceremony, that awards are only about professionals in a certain field coming together and selecting a handful of pieces that these professionals believe are representative of their field.  That’s it.  You won’t suddenly become rich and famous, or get laid with any increasing regularity, or look suddenly hotter in the mirror.  Some people get resentful if they don’t “win” or they aren’t even “nominated” and I just don’t get why.  The handful of pieces selected as being representative doesn’t mean that nothing else can’t be representative.  That’s the rub, friends.  Awards are nice, awards may make some people go “Hmm, cool”, but that’s all they are and, really, all they should be.  Anyone who’s looking for more is probably doing the art for the wrong reasons.

I didn’t, and I suspect no  one else on the list, write to get awards.  We wrote our pieces, our potentially representative pieces, because we wanted to.  They were stories we wanted to tell, with no other thought beyond that.  The people who do it for the recognition, or to try to get rich, or get laid–they never last, nor should they.  Fuck those people.  They clog the channels.

So, it goes like this–if Bones Are Made to be Broken ends up being a nominee, that’s fucking righteous.  If it doesn’t–well, the story and the book are still out there, aren’t they? And that’s pretty goddamned awesome, too. People are reading it.  People are liking it.  People, hopefully, are talking about it with others, who may pick it up themselves.  Some of them tell me about this.

And I’m grateful.  Honestly, even if I feel like a twat.

(Side note – as an outsider who’s not in the HWA, I was very pleased at the prelim ballot.  Not everything I loved made it onto the list [seriously, go buy Paper Tigers RIGHT FUCKING NOW GODDAMMIT THIS IS MY FAVORITE NOVEL OF 2016], but it was interesting enough that I can just nod my head and go, “That’ll do, pig.”)

You can pick up Bones Are Made to be Broken here.

And, if you like what you read, write a quick review on Goodreads and Amazon.  I don’t just mean Bones–although, yes, yes, do review that–but all the books you read.  Spread the word.  Talk to people about what turns your dials.

ajsef

And, finally, a thank you…

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Over on Facebook, that On This Day thingie, for the past few days, has been all about the signing of the contracts and the announcement of Bones Are Made to be Broken, at that point to be released…at some point in 2016 (it wound up coming out on November 29th, barely two months ago, but it seems way longer to me).  Michael Bailey, with illustrator Pat R. Steiner, had been discussing this, that, and the other thing since October of 2015, but nothing was going to go public until everyone had signed their names on some dotted lines.

In the year since, the manuscript was built up, torn down, rearranged.  Pat did about a billion illustrations–almost two dozen or so for the cover alone, and some of them were goddamned awesome (so awesome that we used one for the TPB and eBook and another for the upcoming hardcover).  Michael and I finagled the layout and the wording and, over the summer, who might have time to read the book for a possible blurb, a list that resembled a Holy Grail of first-rate horror writers, with a result that was so close to the blue-sky prospects that they’re almost one and the same.

I wrote two versions of the title novella Bones Are Made to be Broken–one a novel-length version that was good but didn’t turn the screws.  I scrapped it, kept the structure in my head, and rewrote from scratch, never looking at the original version, adding scenes, and bringing the story home, for good, with room to spare in novella territory.  In the midst of all this, Justin Pierre, frontman of the unfortunately-defunct band Motion City Soundtrack, allowed me to use the chorus of a song he’d done by himself as the epigraph by the novella.

And then the book got wrapped up in Dark Region Press’s successful campaign for some Lovecraftian anthologies and pushed back until November, and Michael and I, working with DRP’s media guru, began sending out ARCs to reviewers.

And then reviews started coming in, and then book came out, and more reviews werwe coming in and, goddammit, everything was looking better than I could’ve hoped.  The reviews themselves were ridiculous, if only because people liked it way more than I had hopes for, landing on two best-of lists with barely a fuss (books that come out late in the year are notoriously ignored, if only because of the sheer volume of books that came out earlier in the year).

Now, it’s a year-in.  The book seems to be doing well (but in the murky world of who counts what sales, it’s hard to get a total day-to-day number and have your royalty statements to go on). We’re entering awards season–example: the recommendations for the Horror Writers Association Bram Stoker Awards closed just two days ago–and my editor is feeling optimistic.  I’m not, but I’m naturally a pessimist.  Also, can I be honest?  Awards are nice, but awards aren’t the beginning nor the end of writing and publishing, so I tend to see them as interesting roadside attractions, minor distractions on your way to your destination (which is, of course, the next book).  I will say I don’t turn up my nose at awards, nor hold them as the be-all and end-all of fandom.  However, the stones that Shirley Jackson Award nominees get are fucking awesome.

The plates for the hardcover edition are being made as we speak.  Dear Christ, I just wrote that and it’s true.

But, with all that said, I thought it might be nice to, loudly and publicly, thank everyone who helped me get to this point.  Writing is lonely, but publishing isn’t, and no one does it alone, so, indulge me.

I’m taking this from the acknowledgements page of the book, but, because it was written over the summer, I have to add an addendum to it to include the legions of people who came after:

Thanks to Michael Bailey for being the capable steward of this ship.  Dude does so much shit, and so well, that we all kinda hate him a little bit, even as we cheer him on.  Still, he has placed himself beside me and that’s the place I want him most.

Thanks to Chris Morey and everyone at Dark Regions.

Thanks to Pat R. Steiner, for fucking around with public domain photos one day.

Thanks to the various editors who liked these stories, showed them to their readers.  Big ups to Max Booth III and Lori Michelle at Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing, as well as Anthony Rivera and Sharon Lawson at Grey Matter Press.  Often vilified, small press is made better by having these guys around.

Thanks to Damien Angelica Walters, writer and friend, for going to bat and writing a foreword to this book, even if she told me she’d never written one before.  I wasn’t worried.  A stellar storyteller in her own right—seriously, go pick up Paper Tigers and Sing Me Your Scars right now; you won’t regret it and this isn’t bullshit—she’s also a trusted beta-reader who knows when to call it, and how.  I don’t always listen to her advice, but when I don’t, I usually rue the day.

Thanks to two other beta-readers, Kristi DeMeester and Erinn Kemper.  They consistently challenge me to do better, both through their comments on my stories and their own writing.  I have more beta-readers, a whole battalion of them it sometimes seems, and these stories wouldn’t be any good without them.

Huge thanks to Justin Pierre for the permission to use a part of his song “Everything That Hurts” as the epigraph to “Bones”.  I began the second draft of that story with the chorus at the top of the page, as a guide, even as I told myself I’d have to take it out as the book marched towards publication.  To not have to, to be able to both share a good song and a bit of inspiration for the story, was more than I could ask for.  Thanks, Justin.  If the epigraph or me talking about the song piqued your interest, go to justincourtnerpierre.bandcamp.com.

Thanks to Joe Hill, for 20th Century Ghosts and “Pop Art”.  Thanks to Harlan Ellison for Shatterday and “All the Lies That Are My Life”.

Thanks to my wife, to whom this book is dedicated.  She hitched her wagon to my train sixteen years ago and, nine years ago, soldered the two ends on, making them inseparable.  She has been more than patient over the years, when I’ve had my head glued to a computer screen and earbuds jammed into my skull…but she’s never hesitated to tell me to get back in the game when I’m away for too long, that I’m missing that thing I’m supposed to be writing about: life.

And, finally, it’s cliché as fuck to thank the reader, but, really, thanks.

Now, the addendum:

To the writers who agreed to take a look at a book by a guy they kinda knew and liked it enough to say something, thank you: Jack Ketchum, Jonathan Maberry, Stephanie M. Wytovich, Marge Simon, Richard Thomas, Craig DiLouie, Mercedes Yardley, Gene O’Neill (as well as Kristi DeMeester and Erinn Kemper).

Thanks to all the (as of January 2017; apparently, more reviews are coming) reviewers who, oddly enough, didn’t torch my book (I fully expected you to): Adrian Shotbolt, Benoit Lelievre, Keith Rawson, Michelle Garza, Thomas Joyce, Shane D. Keene, Eddie Generous, George Ilett Anderson.

Thanks to Cyrus Wraith Walker, who does design work for DRP (sorry for the late-night messages!) and Caitlin Waite, who handles media for DRP.  These two are awesome.

And this one is cheesy as fuck, but thanks to the people who’ve messaged me about the book, or tagged me in photos of you with the book.  I hope you liked it (also, it’s nice to see the book out in the world).

Next is getting the hardcover ready to go for publication and the thing is massive and I can’t wait to show it off.

And then?  More writing.  Remember – this is just a roadside attraction, a minor distraction before the final destination: the next story, the next book.

You can pick up Bones are Made to be Broken here.

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Dispatches from the Goodreads Reading Challenge Wastelands: Jonathan Maberry’s PATIENT ZERO

(Quick note: Last year, 2016, I found myself struggling to get through a book as quickly or with as much enjoyment as I used to.  No shade thrown on those books, but my life had become busier and it was easier to read io9 or cruise my Facebook newsfeed than crack open a book.  I didn’t like that and the Goodreads Reading Challenge seemed like a nifty way to get my head back in the game.  Of course, after setting my challenge, I realized I had way overshot my count in comparison to others–some of them reviewers, for Christ’s sake–so this became what will hopefully be a fun, year-long experiment on crashing and burning.

(But, on a related note, I’ve always wanted to see how I read over the course of a year, what my tastes were depending on the time of year, the circumstances, etc.

(So, here’s Dispatches from the Goodreads Reading Challenge Wastelands.)

patientzero

For years, I avoided any series character. On a long enough timeline, all series characters become caricature, all writers (you can almost feel this happening) feeling like they have to deliver the fan-favorites from previous installments. Or, at the very least, they have to constantly remind new readers of certain things, a graph that pops up usually within the first thirty or fifty pages and breaks momentum down.  I love Stephen King, but the final three books of the Dark Tower saga feel always more lightweight than, say, the first and second, pulled down by the caricatures that had replaced Roland, Jake, Eddie, Savannah (also, King himself popping into the book always bugged me; a lazy way of explaining something).  The third book, The Wasteland, had enough cringe-worthy moments at the beginning that I almost died along with the giant bear.

And then I read a glowing FANGO review of Jonathan Maberry’s Patient Zero and thought, “What the hell.”

It was Maberry’s Joe Ledger character and F. Paul Wilson’s Repairman Jack that changed my view–somewhat (the stopping the action to explain a prior event lingers in the mid-series RJ books).

When I got two new Joe Ledger novels–Code Zero and Predator One–over the holidays, I decided to take the entire series out for a spin and get back into the world of the DMS.  (Another strike against series; I can’t read the latest installment without catching up with the prior books, something that becomes imperative if the lapse between reads is very long.)

Joe Ledger is a Baltimore cop who gets, essentially, shanghaied into the Department of Military Sciences (DMS), by Mr. Church, a mystery man who’s apparently immune to red tape or good taste (he chews vanilla wafers constantly, in a shocking denial of flavor).  Meanwhile, various factions–some corporate, some fundamentalist–are cooking up, basically, a zombie plague, and it’s up to Ledger, Church, Major Grace Courtland to stop it before it can be unleashed.

As a standalone novel, it’s pretty solid, but it’s in this thinking that some of the writing gets under a reader’s skin.  The post-climax is Maberry laying the series groundwork, a series of passages that could’ve been excised easily without the reader even noticing.

Moreover, at times, the structure is predictable–when Courtland is introduced, even though Maberry fleshes her out well, a reader knows that she’s going to be the love-interest for Ledger–and that makes some of the beats anticipated, which takes away from the flavor and reaction.

But, for those two things, Maberry writes with a propulsive, yank-you-forward style, the chapters and paragraphs short and punchy, producing a staccato rhythm that can pull you in like a really good drum solo.  Ledger is likable, and Maberry does a yeoman’s work to ensure that the supporting cast is as fleshed out as Ledger or Courtland; Gus Dietrich, another supporting cast member, is probably the only one who doesn’t evolve much beyond G.I. Joe action figure, leaving the most interesting thing about him to be his name.

The plot itself reads like the best action and horror popcorn movies–the ones you can enjoy without trying to overthink too much, but when Maberry goes deep on motivations or character, it doesn’t feel awkward or out-of-place.  Maberry’s capable of sharp, deep writing, but it feels clear that he’s resigned the Joe Ledger series to being “fun”.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that; not everything written has to about Something Very Deep to Make You Examine Your Life and Become Disappointed Yourself.  Reading, first and foremost, should be enjoyable and I can’t tolerate any form of snobbery that denies that fundamental (to me, anyway) right.

Which is awesome because Patient Zero, as well as the other novels in the Ledger series, is fun.

You can’t complain about that, now can you?